This is the first of a series of interviews with people working in different program areas of the Historic Resources Management Branch. Recently, I sat down with Matthew Francis, Manager of Municipal Heritage Services, to discuss the work of the Alberta Main Street Program.
Matthew Francis joined Alberta Culture in 2005. He was originally hired to write Statements of Significance for Alberta’s Provincial Historic Resources and later took on the leadership of the Municipal Heritage Partnership Program. In 2007, he was placed in charge of the Alberta Main Street Program. He soon realised that his first task would be to make the program more sustainable.
The Alberta Main Street Program was at a crossroads in 2007
The program was 20 years old in 2007. It had rehabilitated 23 historic commercial districts with tremendous results, but was showing its age. Due to changes in federal-provincial job training programs, the Alberta Main Street Program could no longer conserve buildings with its own workforce. At the same time, the federal and provincial governments were rethinking how to conserve historic places: a new values-based approach to historic preservation emphasised that understanding a historic building’s architectural or historical significance is necessary to conserve it properly. As a result of these changes, some of the program’s common practices no longer made sense.
Indeed one of the basic tenets of the program—that each community was in the program for three years and then continued the work on its own—wasn’t working. “Many of the original Main Street Communities were seeking readmission to the program–not realising they had already completed it a decade or more ago. I call that main street amnesia,” says Matthew.
How do you revitalize an innovative program (that was never just about heritage conservation).
As he learned more about it, Matthew quickly became fascinated by the variety of problems the Main Street Program had been used to solve. “The communities applying to the program weren’t just looking to conserve buildings, they were trying to entice businesses to move downtown, they were trying to increase the property tax base, and some were even grappling with vagrancy and petty crime.” Although ostensibly focused on conserving historic buildings, doing so successfully proved more complex than simply repairing a foundation or touching up a façade.
Recently, Wainwright used the Alberta Main Street Program to cope with the disruption caused by a deep services project—the closing and tearing up of the street and sidewalks to replace disintegrating water, sewer and utility lines. While necessary to maintain municipal infrastructure, deep services projects hurt the businesses that temporarily lose the use of their main entrance.
The Main Street movement
Matthew has come to see the Alberta Main Street Program as a philosophy and a movement, not simply as another government service. The streetscapes and buildings in historic commercial areas are part of each community’s character.
“People show off places like Inglewood [in Calgary] and downtown Lacombe to visiting friends and family. It’s where they meet for lunch, shop and socialise.” Historic commercial areas have boosters that don’t see themselves has heritage conservationists, but they are. Matthew says that “conserving historic buildings is the key to preserving these areas, and most supporters of historic areas understand that intuitively.”
The Main Street Movement is showing a new way
The Main Street Program demonstrates how the interests of culture and heritage intersect with the fostering of social capital and the economic revitalization of downtown. “A properly conserved historic area is an attraction to both residents and tourists. People want to shop, work and live in these areas—and that can provide the funds to conserve the buildings.”
During the last several years, Matthew has been remodeling the Alberta Main Street Program, using the (U.S.) National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program as a model. The U.S. Main Street Program is organised around four equally important ideas: organisation, design, marketing and economic development.
Community members are the stewards of these areas, particularly the people who live, work or own property there. With the support of the local government, they must oversee the program and hold themselves accountable for its success. Government can’t, and shouldn’t try to run a community-based program like Main Street. Matthew and his colleagues coach and mentor, but they don’t try to run the individual programs from Edmonton: “Local people with local knowledge and energy are keys to authentic and viable main streets.”
The historic places on main street are irreplaceable assets. People come to see the historic places as landmarks; the historic building set downtown apart from a mall, and often the neighbouring town as well. “New buildings are fine, so long as they are compatible with the historic streetscape and don’t falsify it. The compelling streetscape is what initially attracts visitors to the downtown,” he says.
The businesses on successful main streets coordinate their marketing, recognizing that most visitors won’t bother coming to visit just one shop or restaurant. “New trends in social media drive traffic to businesses and historic communities are capitalising on this new way of doing business. All of our Alberta Main Street communities are using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to see and be seen,” says Matthew.
Over the long run, historic main streets areas pay their own way. Tenants in the historic buildings pay for much of the cost of a building’s upkeep; the business owners together pay for the marketing and design work, either directly or through their property taxes. Investment in conservation and marketing pays off as an increasingly large number of people want to live and do business on Main Street.
The renewal years
Since 2007, the Alberta Main Street Program has grown into a network of communities. Matthew is constantly impressed by the grassroots support for Main Street in each community the program works with; he’s also been amazed by the variety of problems these communities have tackled through the program. He gets excited when talking about what has been accomplished.
“The team in Olds has organised a huge number of volunteers to put on all sorts of events promoting the downtown, such as their popular Summer Oldstice Street Festival. They’re also planning for a deep services project of their own.”
“Wainwright has had tremendous success with their Taste of Wainwright culinary festival in the downtown. It has been a signature event, attracting visitors from across Alberta.”
“When Lethbridge joined the program a decade ago its downtown was down on its luck: businesses were failing, vacancy was high and the area was dealing with petty crime and social problems. Using the tools of the Alberta Main Street Program, they reduced the vacancy rate to almost nothing. Businesses are thriving downtown and many of the social problems have faded. With a vibrant coffee culture, creative restaurants, and businesses, downtown Lethbridge is the place to be.”
Looking forward to the year ahead
Matthew is already looking forward to a busy and productive year in the program. There are already four communities in the new Alberta Main Street Program: Camrose, Olds, Wainwright and Lethbridge. “We’re excited to be gathering the coordinators from all of our communities quarterly to talk about best practices and learn from each other.”
Camrose rejoined the program very recently. They will be hiring a Main Street Coordinator shortly. Like all Main Street communities, they completed an inventory of historic places on the main street before being admitted into the program. “The deeper understanding of their historical places which they gained through this heritage planning project, will inform their new work in Historic Downtown Camrose,” says Matthew.
Two Municipal Historic Resources in Uptowne Olds are undergoing multi-year conservation projects: the Maybank Drug Store and the Kemp Block and these should be done by July. Like Wainwright before it, Olds will also be undergoing a major deep services project once the ground thaws.
Olds will also be hosting the first quarterly coordinators meeting, in February 2014. “It’s going to be interesting to see the Olds’s coordinator picking the brains of the other coordinators, particularly Wainwright’s, for ideas on how to deal with the disruption deep services projects cause.”
Having completed their deep services project last year, Wainwright will be finishing up the redevelopment of their streetscape. “Wainwright has the classic Alberta main street, laid out as an intersection of Main Street and the historic railway line. “The Alberta Main Street Program funded the design of the new streetscape and Matthew’s looking forward to seeing the result.
Lethbridge will undertake the conservation of its historic Chinatown. The city council will designate two new Municipal Historic Resources in a few weeks: the Bow on Tong Building and Manie Chinese Opera Society Building. “These buildings were in danger of collapsing, but a grassroots effort led by the Lethbridge Historical Society and the Lethbridge Main Street Program succeeded in stabilising them. The municipal historic resource designations will help to see these special places conserved over the long term,” Matthew says.
All good historians look to the future
So much has changed in the past few years, but Matthew continues to look ahead. “I expect that five years from now there will be at least 20 communities in the Alberta Main Street Program. The network of communities will be sharing ideas with each other and perhaps engaging in national marketing campaigns together. We look forward to celebrating new communities joining the Main Street network in 2014.”
If you’re interested in conserving historic commercial areas you can contact us, and consider attending the 2014 (U.S.) National Main Streets Conference, May 18-20, 2014. It’s in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is a great American city. As most know it has been hurt badly by the restructuring in American car manufacturing. Detroit is using the U.S. Main Street Program to revitalise its commercial areas.
It’s going to be an interesting year.
Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer.